State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Columbia University to Monitor NYC Waterways

Dr. Wade McGillis of Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory is the Lead Principal Investigator on a new project entitled “NYC Sustainable Urban Water Quality: the Earthwatch Institute Freshwater Program”, set to take place through January 2017. Dr. McGillis and his staff will be working in partnership with the Earth Watch Institute to deliver this program. Critical to this project is understanding Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO), which is the process by which untreated wastewater and storm water are released into nearby water bodies at permitted discharge locations throughout the city when it rains.  Even smaller storm events can trigger CSO and overwhelm the water treatment systems due to the abundance of impervious surfaces in NYC.

This project hopes to provide an increased dataset of bacteria concentration throughout the city in order to aid in the mayor’s long-term $2.9 billion PlaNYC which includes a proposal to reduce CSOs by 8l.2 billion gallons per year over the next 20 years.  Gathering more and improving data will lead to an increased understanding of the environmental impact of the CSO, making it possible to better assess the effectiveness of various measures addressing the problem.  In order to discern the relationship between rainfall and the water quality impairment resulting from CSOs, bacteria samples will be regularly collected from areas around the city and rainfall measurements will be tracked in order to compare them to the samples.  The expectation is that larger storms will result in higher dilution of sewage due to the greater addition of water to the system than would result from smaller storms.  This project will also help to establish a baseline of change in bacteria resulting from rainfall in order to be able to quantify the positive effects of CSO mitigation efforts.

Outreach efforts included in this project consists of training days for Citizen Science Leaders (CSLs), which will result in over 120 trained HSBC employee citizen scientists who will play an important role in the sampling process.  The NYC Sustainable Urban Water Quality is part of a larger international research and learning effort called the HSBC Water Programme, which is comprised of similar research projects on water quality being carried out in over 25 cities worldwide by citizen scientists.

The knowledge gathered from this project will have lasting effects on NYC water quality and the city’s impact on the environment by helping to establish a quantifiable relationship between rainfall events and the resulting effect on water quality eventually influencing policy changes and management plans.  Additionally, it will raise public awareness on environmental issues, specifically CSO events and their effect on the local ecosystems.  Simultaneously it will develop local environmental leaders and educate businesses, organizations and families on steps they can take to reduce their water footprint.


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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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